What Are The Different Types Of Nurses?

"I have been strongly considering a career as a nurse. I know there is a ton of opportunity in the medical field, but med school is out of the question for me. I like the idea of being able to choose my own hours and where I live and work. There are a number of different types of nurses though, aren’t there? I’ve heard of registered nurses and nurse practitioners, but I have no idea what the difference is. Are there other types of nurses too? Please help me understand the different possibilities in this field so I can decide what to do. Thank you."

asked by Callie from Tacoma, WA

Nursing is a wonderful career, and there are so many types of work you can do in the field. There are several different types of nurses, and there are a couple of different ways you can break down the categories. Certain types of nurses are delineated by how much education they receive and the medical duties they are authorized to perform based on that level of education. Other types may be denoted according to specialty. So first, let’s take a look at types of nurses based on level of education and responsibility. In this category, there are three basic types. Then we will talk about different types of nurses based on specialization. There are dozens of different specializations available.

Types of Nurses According to Responsibilities

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

Licensed Practical Nurses, or LPNs are also known as Licensed Vocational Nurses, or LVNs. It is the same thing either way. The different names are based on location. In some states, they are called LPNs, but in other states, they are called LVNs. These nurses study for one year after high school and receive licensing from their state. LPNs can be supervised either by doctors or registered nurses, and usually only do the most basic medical duties. This is the nurse that measures your weight when you come into the clinic and records your symptoms are probably an LPN.

LPNs rarely specialize in specific fields, because specializations require more in-depth knowledge and training which LPNs do not have. Their knowledge is generalized, so they receive more generalized jobs. This is one reason that LPNs do not receive as much pay as registered nurses and nurse practitioners (see below). The other reason is that higher pay grades usually come with higher levels of responsibility, and LPNs do not take on as much responsibility as registered nurses or nurse practitioners. Still, this can be an excellent first step toward becoming a registered nurse, especially if you have very little time and money to spend on your education.

Registered Nurses (RNs)

The vast majority of people who are planning on becoming nurses are planning on ultimately becoming registered nurses. Registered nurses typically attend school for two or four years and earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. They must then pass an exam to become registered nationwide. If you become an RN, you will have more responsibilities and be able to perform many more duties than an LPN, and you will also be able to earn more money (the average annual salary is close to $60,000 a year for a registered nurse, whereas for a licensed practical nurse, it is closer to $40,000 a year).

As a registered nurse, you may administer medical treatments, assist patients with treatment plan management, and work with families. You also may specialize in a specific field in order to earn more money. Because registered nurses have more training than licensed practical nurses, many more opportunities are open to them. I will talk more about specializations after talking about nurse practitioners.

Nurse Practitioner (NPs)

You may meet some older nurse practitioners with bachelor’s degrees, but most new NPs will earn master’s degrees in order to qualify. These are the most advanced nurses with the highest level of training and responsibilities. While most nurses work for a physician directly, in some states nurse practitioners may open up private practices of their own and administer medicine without a physician on site. In these situations, NPs are often referred to as physician-extenders. These nurses still typically treat common ailments, but this allows medical doctors more time to focus on more complicated illnesses and injuries.

Most nurses do not go on to become nurse practitioners, but if the idea of being able to run your own practice or work without supervision appeals to you, you may very well want to aim to become a nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners are empowered to make challenging medical decisions. They also may earn even more money than registered nurses. If however you prefer not to be in that position of responsibility, you may be happier as a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse.

Types of Nurse According to Specializations

You can consider types of nurses based on levels of responsibility, but you can also consider types of nurses based on specializations. There are general practice nurses who do not specialize, but there are also nurses who take on very specific tasks relating to specific health conditions and areas of the hospital. Here are some types of nurses based on specialization. These are just a few of the many routes you can go once you get into nursing and decide on a specific path:

PACU nurse

The PACU nurse works in the post-anesthesia care unit, taking care of patients who have just emerged from surgery. This is a very high-paying job, and requires experience in a similar position such as working in the intensive care unit. Once you have experience as an ICU nurse, you can try applying to be a PACU nurse.

Nurse anesthesiologist

This type of nurse is also known as a nurse anesthetist, and is responsible for administering anesthesia during surgery. This is a critical role in the surgery room, and because of its vital importance, nurse anesthetists are extremely well paid. This is considered a highly desirable job for a lot of nurses, largely because it is one of the best paying jobs you will ever find.

Nurse midwife

Nurse midwives help with the delivery of babies. They may work in hospitals and clinics as well as birthing centers, and sometimes may provide in-home services. They generally work closely with OBGYN doctors. Sometimes these nurses may also provide care to newborn babies.

Emergency and trauma nurses

These nurses provide care to patients in the ER. ER nursing is extremely fast-paced and can be very stressful, but it can open doors to a number of other specialties. ER nurses may also be able to work more flexible shifts, and may be paid very highly.

Holistic nurses.

These nurses help patients on a level that integrates the care of the mind and spirit along with the care of the body. Self-responsibility and self-care are emphasized by holistic nurses. This is considered more of an approach to nursing than an actual specialty. Nurses of any specialty may also consider themselves holistic nurses if they subscribe to the holistic health philosophy.

Perioperative nurses

Perioperative nurses work with patients who are actively undergoing operations as well as patients between operative procedures. These types of nurses work closely with many other nurses and physicians, including surgeons, nurse anesthetists, and nurse practitioners.

Critical care nurses

These nurses typically work in emergency rooms or intensive care units (ICUs). They are usually very well paid since their jobs involve a lot of stress and responsibility. Critical care nursing can be a launch platform into other specialties.

Pediatric nurses

These nurses work with babies, children, and adolescents. Like pediatricians, they may see their patients grow into young adulthood if they work in the same community for a long time. This is a great choice if you like working with young people and with their parents.

Neonatal nurses

Nurses who provide care for newborn infants for the first 28 days after birth are called neonatal nurses. Neonatal nurses may be designated as Level I, II, III, or IV. Those with the highest level designations take care of newborns that are in the most critical condition.

Cardiac nurses

These nurses specifically work with patients who suffer from cardiovascular conditions. They may treat a variety of cardiovascular conditions, including coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, and angina. Nurses in this field work under the supervision of a cardiologist. This position used to require a specific certification, but as it is no longer offered, it is open to registered nurses with suitable experience in the area.


This type of nursing is becoming more and more common. Many insurance companies allow patients to call a 24/7 nursing helpline. Telephone triage nurses take calls from patients and listen to their symptoms, and then evaluate whether any require critical attention. It is largely an educational role. Telenurses have reported a high degree of satisfaction with their jobs.

Legal nurses

Legal nurses are registered nurses who act as consultants in medically related legal cases. Attorneys may have a difficult time interpreting evidence in these cases without expert advice. Legal nurses can advise lawyers as to what medical terminology means and what healthcare issues are at stake. Legal nursing is a relatively new type of nursing, and has only been around since the 1980s.

Psychiatric nurses

Psychiatric nurses work with patients who suffer from mental illness. There are three levels of nursing in the US that pertain to this field. Just as you can become an LPN or RN in general nursing, you can also become a psychiatric LPN or psychiatric RN. The third level is advanced practice registered nurse, or APRN.

Travel nurses

Travel nurses fill temporary positions in different locations. This type of nursing developed in response to the general shortage which has become a problem for hospitals and clinics around the world. Travel nurses may receive higher pay than those that stay in one location. Many traveling nurses choose this profession because they enjoy the opportunity to explore different states or countries. Generally travel nurses go through recruitment agencies to find their posts.

School nurses

Nurses usually work in hospitals and clinics, but may sometimes find other employers. School nurses work in elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges, and provide on-campus care for students and faculty members.

As you can see, there are numerous different specializations within the field of nursing.

Those listed above are just a sample—there are dozens more to choose from, and new specializations are appearing as time unfolds and new medical needs arise. So no matter what your field of interest and no matter how much or how little responsibility you are looking for, you will find many different opportunities to interest you. Some of these positions are easy to get started in right away after you graduate from nursing school. Others require experience in the workforce. Oftentimes there are specific pathways you must take through nursing specializations to get the job that you want. You may also need to get additional training in order to qualify.

There is such a deficit of nurses in the United States right now that if you decide you are interested in this as your vocation, there is a chance you will be able to find a future employer to help you pay your way through nursing school. In exchange, you would agree to work several years under the employ of the hospital which sponsors you. Other more traditional forms of financial aid and scholarships may also be available. Remember, if you do not have much time or money to invest in your education right now, you can start out as an LPN and then return to school later. Otherwise, you may want to embark on an educational path toward becoming a registered nurse or nurse practitioner right away.

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